Vicki Morgan & Gail Gaynin, Morgan Gaynin Inc.

Friday, August 06 by Angela Kryhul,

Posted in: Industry Interviews

Angela Kryhul speaks with Vicki Morgan and Gail Gaynin, principals of New York-based Morgan Gaynin Inc., a premiere agency representing select international illustrators. As art school grads, Vicki and Gail's creative backgrounds complement the business advice they offer as agents, guest lecturers, workshop leaders, and consultants.

  • What do artists need to know about doing business today?
  • Tips for a simple and functional website
  • Advice for working with an agent or representing oneself

Interview Transcript

This is an edited transcript of Angela Kryhul's interview with Vicki Morgan and Gail Gaynin, principals of New York-based Morgan Gaynin Inc., a premiere agency representing select international illustrators. As art school grads, Vicki and Gail's creative backgrounds complement the business advice they offer as agents, guest lecturers, workshop leaders, and consultants.

Angela Kryhul:

What do you think every artist needs to be successful?

Gail Gaynin:

I think, first and foremost, they have to think of themselves as a business, and they're selling their own talent, which is an accomplished talent. They have to be willing to invest time and money in their business. They have to know who their clients are and how best to reach out to those people. And they have to really be persistent, reconnect with these clients on a regular basis. Clearly develop a client list first, to do that with. Or use a list, like an ADBASE list. But, regardless, they have to be really persistent about it.

Angela:

I think the point about investing time and perseverance is really important. How much time should artists devote to promotion? Should they schedule it, like an appointment? You know, once a week or once a month?

Gail:

Absolutely. It's a great idea because, again, it's thinking of yourself as a business. It's just like making an appointment with an art director or scheduling a doctor's appointment. You have to do it on a regular basis... or maybe a dentist appointment

Angela:

Right. And one thing that may be a bit confusing, or an area where people are not quite sure, in terms of how much money to invest. Especially if they're using social media, that can really be a time investment more than a monetary investment. Is there a way to calculate how much money a commercial illustrator needs to spend on their business?

Vicki Morgan:

I don't think there is a way to actually calculate it, if there is I don't know what it is. But when you think about the different things you can utilize to promote your business, you can begin to get a sense of what it will cost you. Yes, there's digital media and that is very time consuming, but there are also digital directories that cost money to be on, and are good to be on, because besides your own websites, they are a general source for people who are not familiar with you, to find you. So I think that's important.

People should join organizations and that's costly. Subscribing to periodicals so that they know what's going on in the industry and who's using what and what their peers are doing, is important.

Investing in the cost of contests and entry fees. And if they're fortunate enough to be accepted, the hanging fees. All these things, if you begin to do them all, and figure out what it's costing, could accumulate into a few thousand dollars. And to scrimp on that end is, I think, being penny-wise and dollar-foolish. But that's how people will know that you're there. There is so much competition now and networking is a wonderful way to get your work and your name out there. And it's not costly and social media is another wonderful way.

But these are not the only ways. And I think you have to do everything you possibly can to market your work and invest the time and money in doing that. I also think that when you're starting out, as any small business would, they would have a budget to work with to do what's necessary to get started.

And, to that end, I think somebody should be prepared to go at least six months without an income. But at the same time be able to invest in what they need to invest in to get their business started. Aside from supplies and that kind of thing, they really need to start advertising and marketing themselves well and continue to follow through with that.

And, as Gail was saying, you have to wear both hats. You're the creative person of your business and you're the marketing person of your business, and you have to allot time to do both. And if you don't, one will suffer more than the other.

Angela:

It sounds like artists need to spend their promotional dollars wisely... but is there a way for them to tell where they're going to get the biggest bang for their buck? Or does it really depend on who they're actually targeting as a potential client?

Vicki:

Well I think they have to figure out who their potential client is. If they're a generalist illustrator, if they're basically an editorial illustrator, they can hit many markets. If they are an architectural renderer, then they're into more niche marketing. So I think they really have to think about who their potential client is and how does that potential client can go about looking for work. It helps to interview people too. If you can possibly ask an art director who's in the world that you're in: How do you go about finding illustrators who you want to work with? What's your modus operandi? Where do you look? Do you go online? Do you look in periodicals, do you ask other people, do you look in annuals, social media? And ask as many people as possible... who would be giving you work, in your area of expertise.

Angela:

It makes a lot of sense that people are promoting where their potential clients are looking

Vicki:

Yeah, and joining organizations. If you're interested in working in a special field, then it wouldn't be a bad idea to join an organization that that field has. For instance, if you're interested in children's books, to join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Or if you're interested in theatre, perhaps there's an organization of theatre people, or certainly to read the periodicals that theatre people read and maybe even advertise in one of them.

So I find that I'm often saying to illustrators that they need to put on the hat of an art director and think "where would I find you?" Where would somebody who's an art director, go to look to find me?

Angela:

Right

Vicki:

And step in those shoes and see what you would do if you were trying to find you.

Angela:

As you mentioned earlier, a website is important for any business, large or small. What is the most important thing that artists should think about when they're creating their websites?

Gail:

What I've heard many times over and over again from art directors is that it has to be easy to navigate. Because time is money, again, they want to get in and get out quickly. They don't want any fancy intros, they just want to ... I went to a website the other day that was like waiting for paint to dry. And it was just really annoying because I wanted to see something specific and there was no way to click out of the intro.

It has to load fast, they have to have the images, good-sized images. Vicki and I both like rollovers because you don't have to keep clicking back and forth.

Angela:

So you're really making it easy for that person to get the information that they came for.

Gail:

Exactly.

Angela:

Right.

Vicki:

Again, as I said, put on the hat of somebody else who's looking at you. What we did when we put together our website was we looked around at many, many websites - not only in our industry, but other websites too, to see what mechanical aspects we liked. What didn't we like. And when we built our site, we took all of that into consideration.

Angela:

Hmmm.

Vicki:

It's not a vanity place. It's a place to do business.

Gail:

Right, sometimes the great design can almost get in they way because I've seen websites, again, where they will have an image number without a thumbnail. So if you want to go back and look at that image, it's very hard to figure out what to go to. You have to write down the number, or they'll have dots to represent an image that will appear. And it's just not good enough. They have to know what they can go back to.

Vicki:

It's a perfect example of form and function and it often gets out of hand. So to really get the most out of having a website, it should be simple and functional.

Angela:

It sounds like it's very similar to editing your portfolio and your samples. Let's segue into that. Let's talk about presenting your samples and promoting one's work. What are the most important things to keep in mind?

Vicki:

Well I think the most important thing is to create a presentation that shows the kind of work you want to do. And to display it in a... to present it in a really impressive way. So if you did an illustration for an editorial piece and they ran it 2x3, and it's a really nice piece... then show it full size. Nobody needs to see that it was for that particular editorial. The star is the work, not the magazine you did it for.

Angela:

I think that's a really interesting point.

Vicki:

... it has to speak for itself. So I think the most important thing is just show your work, show it off, and show only what you want to do. We have found so often that when you show work, people might refer to a particular piece that you no longer want to do, and then you're stuck doing another piece that reflects a style that you don't want to do. So you're just building on a history instead of planning your future.

So don't show any samples that are representative of styles or techniques that you no longer care to do, no matter how impressive the client was. It should be out of your portfolio.

Don't show too many samples. Leave them wanting to see more, but seeing enough to know what you do - 15 or 20 is fine. On some of these directories, digital directories, they allow you to have many more than that on the first page, so to speak, that you open up to. And if that's the case, then make that a very impressive 36 pieces. People will look at... it's like when you go to Google. You tend to look at the first page and you don't necessarily go onto page 9 and 10. You want your best work to be at the beginning.

We hardly show portfolios anymore, actual portfolios. But portfolios or a website, there should be a flow to the work. You should start out with a bang, and really get somebody's attention and then have one piece flow into the next so there's a continuity. And if you have different styles or techniques that you want to present, it shouldn't be too jarring. It should segue very nicely.

And lastly, I think that you need to use all your artistry in your presentation so that it's not just about the work, but it's an artful presentation. Sometimes an artist will be so talented and they will show up showing us their work in a kind of pieces of paper under their arm, or sloppily put into a portfolio. And you have to look at the whole format and think of it as a design, and that each piece has to look beautiful within the format that you're showing in.

Angela:

So if an illustrator's having trouble editing their portfolio because they're too close to the work or maybe they have an emotional attachment to some images that are perhaps not the most effective to include... who can they turn to for advice?

Gail:

Well, they can turn to people who give consultations about it. A lot of the directories, I think, have people there who will give you advice on your portfolios. Or they can think about or consider getting an agent. An agent is like the marketing arm of somebody's business, or the business arm of an illustrator's business. So they handle the marketing, they handle the editing of the portfolios in consort with the artist, most probably. But they handle negotiations, they handle client relations in general. And I think that an artist should go to an agent if they don't want to handle those things or if they don't feel comfortable with it. It's really... there's a partnership there.

Angela:

That's great. Let's talk about that. When did the two of you establish your agency?

Gail:

We both worked independently as agents for many, many years and we started working together. And we were friends before. We started working together in 1995, and in 2000 we changed the [company] name. I had represented photographers before and Vicki represented photographers and illustrators, and then just illustrators. And myself, having an art background, actually we both have art backgrounds, I found that illustration was much closer to my heart. And I just sort of started working with Vicki because I wanted to see what it was like. And at that particular time she had an assistant who was going away on vacation, and we both thought it was perfect timing. And we didn't look back.

Angela:

So you both have been doing this for several years. So if an illustrator's considering working with an agent, what sort of advice would you give them about when and why they should consider it?

Gail:

I think they have a cohesive body of work to take to someone and yes, the agent will guide you and edit. But I think you have to have something to begin with and you have to have a little experience out in the field. And I think it's good for everyone for a while to rep themselves so they really get a sense of how it all works.

Hopefully, at some point, one would get so busy at one point that they couldn't handle the business part of their business, or again, they didn't want to. And when they look for an agent they have to look for someone who's sensibilities are very much in line and in keeping with their own. I would go and look at websites and look at the kind of eye the agent has because every group has a look to it of some sort, and sometimes there are subtle differences and sometimes they're glaring.

One rep might really specialize in a very particular area and others are more generalists. But, regardless, there's a look to that rep agency's eye. So I think you have to look through the groups and see where you might be a good fit, where someone is not going to overlap with your work and yet you'll still stand out. You have to think of an agent, and we may have touched on this before, as a source for illustration, where someone will go to look for illustrators.

Angela:

Hmmm

Gail:

An individual on their own can have a website, they can ... either they're on a group website... And Vicki mentioned earlier that's really a good place to be, because it's a source.

But another place to be is with a rep group because after a while clients begin to depend on reps' eyes in the same way that they would go to one of the larger websites to look for people. They would come to... get to depend on a rep's eye because they [artists] are prescreened.

Sometimes people will just call us up and say "who do you have that does such and such?" Without even seeing someone, and then we can take them on a walk through our website.

Angela:

It sounds like it's almost two sides of a coin where the rep is saving you money and making you money.

Vicki:

The rep is. The representative is taking care of all that marketing work that you should be taking care of while you're working, but you're too busy working sometimes to keep up with that. But it needs to be maintained simultaneously. So a representative is investing their money in your marketing and you're not having to pay for that. You don't need to employ somebody to do your billing and to do your marketing and to get your promotions together and all that. Your agent is doing that and you're not having to pay them anything while you are in fact creating your art.

When the agent makes a sale for you, when the agent gets you an assignment, and we get paid, that's when the agent earns their money. So it's really saving you a lot of out-of-pocket expense. The agent pays a percentage of whatever your marketing and promotion costs are. So a given $100 for a postcard will only cost you perhaps $70 because the agent's paying their 30%. So that's saving you money.

Agents tend to get discounts when they're going with groups into directories and other places. So you're getting an agent's discount and you're getting the agent to be paying a quarter to a third of the expense, and you're not having to layout the money to begin with. So right away, that's a huge financial savings.

And the other side is agents are skilled in negotiating and they tend to get higher prices than an artist will on his or her own. And usually it's even more than what the cost of what their commission is. It can often be. So if it is, that's great. And if it's basically just covering the cost of the commission, the artist has still gotten all that work without having to pay anything more than what they would have received on their own.

So I think having an agent is a tremendous savings, and you can make a lot more money. So I think it's wise to have an agent, however you really have to have the personality that wants an agent. You have to be willing to relinquish that part of your business. You have to want a partner. You have to not feel like you have to be in control of everything all the time, and trust that the agent understands what you need. You really have to have a meshing of the two of you.

And I wanted to go back to something you were saying before about editing your portfolio. If you have a good relationship with an agent, I think you can trust that they understand what your art is about and they will be able to say "I like that piece but I understand that you broke up with your boyfriend when you were doing it, but it's really one of your better pieces. So I think we really should be showing that because it suggests what you want to be doing in the future." And that can allow the artist to move away from that emotional attachment because somebody is looking at it in a different light.

Conversely, they might be very attached to a piece and an agent can say "this is not reflecting what you told me you want to be doing. And I really don't think we should be presenting this work because if you get work based on this piece, I think you'll be unhappy..."

Angela:

so....

Vicki:

... and I find that our artists trust our eye like that because they know we've listened to them and we hear what they want to do, and where they want to be going. And they also know we both have extensive art backgrounds ourselves. So we're not ... so we come to our jobs with a background in art and business that they can trust. And I think a lot of agents have that.

Angela:

Let's say an illustrator has an agent. Then can they also go out and pursue work on their own?

Gail:

I think that every rep agent has a different understanding of how they do business. Very often, most reps allow you to retain house accounts, which are clients that you established previously. You would never want to pursue the same clients that your agent is pursuing. So you have to have very clear lines there. That just doesn't work. It looks like someone doesn't trust someone. It reflects poorly on an artist if they are pursuing the same clients that their agent is pursuing.

So you just have to have clearly divided lines if you're going to not have exclusive relationships.

Vicki:

Another thing is if an artist has house accounts... house accounts should be accounts that they work with regularly. Not somebody they just worked with a year ago, once. And the reason is because an agency is a source, a client will come to an agency and say, as Gail suggested, "who do you have who can do this?" And if somebody has retained a client as a house account with whom they really haven't worked that much, we can't go ahead and represent them to this client because it's their house account. So they're kind of cutting off their nose to spite their face by wanting to hold onto something like that... does that make sense?

Angela:

Absolutely. It's a real partnership.

Vicki:

Yeah, it is a partnership and you often have to just relinquish your hold on things when you have a partnership and trust your partner and I think that's what an artist has to do. And if they hold on covetously to too many accounts, they will suffer from that. So, house accounts are okay, but it's not really okay to go pursuing your own work because it reflects poorly on you and on the representative. It sounds like somebody's not doing their job effectively and it looks to an outsider like this is a poor arrangement.

Angela:

So, do you have any tips for finding the right agent?

Gail:

It's very important not to just go with someone because they choose you. Because an agent calls you up and says they want to represent you. We actually prefer when people call us, then we know they're looking for an agent. We don't like it when people call us, and their work doesn't fit with our group at all. It's important to do some research. It's important to know what artists each different rep group represents and have, as we said earlier, there's a look to a group... and make sure you fit in with that look.

And ask a lot of questions. Ask clients as well as fellow artists about what they've heard. What kind of reputation the rep group has, and especially clients. What's it like to work with them?

Vicki:

Also, do your clients work with that group? If you're interested in working with some particular clients, I mean you are working with some particular clients, ask those clients what representatives they like to work with because that's the market you want to go after. If you're wanting to go after those clients, as I said earlier, you want to know how did they find the artists they work with.

Gail:

Your gut, I think is a really important part of this whole thing. You have to really talk to the agent, make sure you feel comfortable with how they do their business. Make sure you feel comfortable with them as a person, how you mesh together, with their office staff, with the look of their agency and the promotions they do as a group...

Vicki:

Do you like the company of the other artists? Are you proud to be in their company? Or are you embarrassed by any of it? Then you shouldn't be in that group.

Angela:

Just wanted to go back to an earlier point that was made about pursuing work on your own. This is sort of related... let's say you do have a rep. Can you promote with your rep, or does the rep do all of your promotion?

Gail:

I think you always promote with your rep, well, with the approval on both sides. It should be a joint effort, again it's a partnership.

Vicki:

And both people are paying for it.

Gail:

So there's a shared cost. Everybody, both sides should have a say in what gets promoted.

Angela:

So really...

Vicki:

Again, in our experience it sort of flows because we're in sync with the person and it's rare that somebody will say "I want to do this as a promotion" and we'll say we don't think it's a good idea. And if that happens on a rare occasion, we discuss why we think it might not be wise, and they discuss why they would like to do it, and we come to some understanding. But it has to be mutual because it's benefiting both of us and both of us are paying for it.

Which is also why, as an agency, we tend not to pay anything towards contest entries because, from the outset, we decided we didn't want to be so influential in what the artist chose to enter in a contest. We wanted them to take a chance and enter things that were personal and were extending themselves a little bit. And we did not want to have to pass judgment, which would have been a fair thing to do if we were paying for it. So we help everybody in contest entries and do whatever we can to be of assistance, but the expense for it is the artist's alone.

Angela:

It sounds like an illustrator needs to have some business savvy, and I wonder if you could talk about what are some of the important things that illustrators need to know about doing business today.

Gail:

Well, it's true. Even if you have an agent you have to be informed and you have to know about, have a general sense of pricing, which... that's one of the reasons I said earlier that it's important to rep yourself for a little bit to get a sense of the market. Also there's the Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines book put out by The Graphic Artists Guild, which will help people with their pricing and will also help people with their rights. It will teach them about copyrights and negotiations.

And you have to be able to tell your agent what you want your agent to do - because the agent is representative of you. So, in order to be informed, I think it's really important... informed enough to tell your agent, you have to educate yourself.

It's important to read articles and to go to industry workshops and industry seminars, and to join groups like the Guild or the Society of Illustrators that will really inform you about what's going on. And networking with colleagues can be very, very helpful. Friends who have been through something before can often help you out in an experience.

I think it's also important to line up your professional team before you have a need for them. Like a lawyer. Should you get into any trouble, you don't need to first start searching around for someone to help you start negotiating.

Vicki:

An accountant

Gail:

An accountant. Different service people who will make your studio run smoothly, even down to service techs for your computer.

Vicki:

It goes back to seeing yourself as a business and artists in particular, in all the arts, have not been schooled that way. They have spent their lives working on their artistry.

Gail:

It's like, how can you have a business out of something you love so much, and it is a business because this is a way you have chosen to make your money.

Vicki:

Right, and they have to see it as a commodity that somebody's buying. And just because it is that, doesn't mean it diminishes the quality of what they're selling. Their art is still is as good as it is, and now they have to make their business be comparable. And to that end, they just can't relinquish everything and say [to their agent] "take me, I'm yours. Decide for me." That's when you hear about all these people who get totally screwed by the business world, because they're not making informed choices. So they have to be informed about business. They can leave all the particulars to an agent, but they need to be aware of what their agent's doing. And make choices along with their agent. Just in the same way that I said I think its very important that Gail and I and other agents know something about art so that we can offer informed thoughts and editing etc., to our artists.

So somebody's doing themselves a real disservice if they want to make a living as an illustrator and they haven't taken the time to address the business aspects and get themselves good professional help and do all the things Gail suggested.

Angela:

So they need to be business savvy and aware but they don't have to go it alone?

Vicki:

That's right.

Gail:

Right, but they can go it alone. I mean people certainly can represent themselves and that's when they have to be even more business savvy.

Vicki:

And choosing to represent yourself is really a very personal decision; there are some wonderful, wonderful artists who represent themselves because they enjoy the business aspect, they enjoy the client contact, they want to be on top of every aspect of their business. And they're independent. And then there are other people who just feel they don't want to concentrate on those things. They would prefer to work with somebody whose area of expertise is solely the business. And they're very comfortable with a partnership; they're not solo people. And that works for them.

And I will often say it's like somebody saying I want to live in the city, or I want to live in the country. Or I want children, or I don't want children. It's not a matter of right or wrong, it's a personal...

Gail:

Life choice

Angela:

So, let's say an illustrator does want to represent themselves... do you have any tips for them?

Vicki:

Yes, it's very helpful when you're speaking to a client to have a set idea of the things that you need to know, and to have an organized place for putting it.

I used to, when I started out, write things on a little piece of paper, napkins, and I found it was very disconcerting. So writing things in a notebook and keeping a notebook, or having a sheet that you pull every time you pick up the phone or have a conversation with an art director where you can write everything down on, is very helpful. With all the questions that you need to have answered, like their name and their email, who the client is and just a whole transaction form that you can go back to. And if you want to write it on your computer...

Gail:

A fill in the blanks

Vicki:

Yeah, that's great. But you really need to have all the questions so you don't forget to ask... is it black and white or color? And you go ahead and do it in color and then find out they really wanted it in black and white. So all the questions that you could possibly need to ask should be written down and filled in. And keeping a running file of all of the transactions that you have with somebody, each person, each job transaction should have its own file and a running file of email. And if you speak to somebody in a phone conversation, because so much is done on computers these days, it wouldn't be a bad idea to confirm what you discussed in an email so that its in writing between you, and there are no misconceptions.

And really the most important thing is to say "what did you see of mine that you're responding to?" Because some people have so many different styles or color senses that somebody could say specifically what they were responding to so that you know how to proceed and you don't go off in the wrong direction.

So those are some very important questions to think of when you're dealing with a client

Gail:

When it comes to things like negotiating, you have to make sure that you have all of those issues covered on that piece of paper. You have to make sure you ask about the rights that are wanted and the due dates. And if you have an organized list where you can more or less fill in the blanks, it will guide you through it and you wont leave anything out. And without knowing something like what rights, you can't even discuss a fee knowledgeably.

Vicki:

Something else I think is really important when you're negotiating is to just say "let me get back to you."

Angela:

Hmmm

Vicki:

...and not to feel that you have to, that you're on....

Gail:

...that you don't have to respond instantly about a fee because you have to step away and look at all the parts to it.

Angela:

... it sounds really important...

Vicki:

... tell what you think, tell me what you want now. And you just have to say, "I really have to think about this and I'll get back to you in 10 minutes," and give yourself time to look at all the particulars. And if you need to call somebody and get some feedback, a friend, or network with somebody and get your thoughts cleared about it. But don't feel pressured to give an answer right on the spot.

Gail:

The job isn't going to walk away in 10 minutes, most probably.

Angela:

That sounds like great advice because I think people do feel pressured to quote, or give a ballpark, and then they get stuck with that amount.

Vicki:

A ballpark is always tricky. You don't give a ballpark if that's what you'll be held to. If you give a range from low to high, your client's going to hear the low. And if your client gives you a range from low to high, you're going to hear the high. So just don't get roped into giving any response without giving free thought to it.

Angela:

Well that's great advice. Thank you so much, Vicki and Gail, for spending the time today.

Gail:

You're very welcome. Our pleasure

Vicki:

Thank you

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